Harriet and Isabella

Harriet and Isabella

A Novel

  • reading group guide
It is 1887, and Henry Ward Beecher lies dying. Reporters from around the world, eager for one last story about the most lurid scandal of their time, descend on Brooklyn Heights, their presence signaling the beginning of the voracious appetite for fallen celebrities we know so well today.

When Henry Ward Beecher was put on trial for adultery in 1875, the question of his guilt or innocence was ferociously debated. His trial not only split the country, it split apart his family, causing a particularly bitter rift between his sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Isabella Beecher Hooker, an ardent suffragist. Harriet remained loyal to Henry, while Isabella called publicly for him to admit his guilt. What had been a loving, close relationship between two sisters plummeted into bitter blame and hurt.

Harriet and Isabella each had a major role in the social revolutions unfolding around them, but what happened in their hearts when they were forced to face a question of justice much closer to home? Now they struggle: who best served Henry -- the one who was steadfast or the one who demanded honesty?
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  • Touchstone | 
  • 320 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780743277778 | 
  • January 2009
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Reading Group Guide

Harriet and Isabella
Discussion Points
1. On page 10, Harriet tells a young Isabella that hypocrisy is the enemy of truth, the coward's way out. What circumstances prompt this moral proclamation, and how deeply does it affect Isabella?
2. Discuss Harriet's and Isabella's opinions of each other as each reflects on the past while Henry lies dying.
3. After seeing a woman struck by her disapproving husband at Anna Dickinson's speech in Hartford, Isabella realizes how closely paralleled are slavery and the treatment of women, especially underprivileged women. What similarities do you see in the abolition and women's suffrage movements and their philosophies as described in this novel? Do you agree that the situation of the slave and that of the nineteenth-century woman is similar? Why or why not?
4. Mary Beecher points out to Harriet that betrayal is never simple. Consider those characters accused of betrayal in this novel, such as Isabella, Frank Moulton, Elizabeth Tilton, and Victoria Woodhull. Why do you think these characters did what they did?
5. Henry is furious with Isabella, yet Harriet is the one who leads the family in ostracizing her. How much of Isabella's supposed betrayal does Harriet take personally? What clues tell you that Harriet's outrage and hurt may be more about Harriet herself than on Henry's behalf?
6. How does Isabella's role as the "baby" of the family affect how she leads her see more

About the Author

Patricia O'Brien
Photo Credit:

Patricia O'Brien

Patricia O'Brien is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Glory Cloak and co-author of I Know Just What You Mean, a New York Times bestseller. She lives in Washington, D.C.


Author Revealed

Q. how did you come to write Harriet and Isabella?

A. I thought I knew all there was to know about Harriet Beecher Stowe when I began exploring the possibility of writing about her. She was the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a book that galvanized a nation against slavery, and I was sure I had read it sometime back in school. It was one of those books that got "assigned" and so was read dutifully and then forgotten. I soon realized not only that I had never read it, I knew very little about Harriet's life - and, in particular, her amazing family. The Beechers were rock stars of the 19th century - the Kennedys of their generation: glamorous, accomplished and highly respected. But there was plenty going on behind the scenes. When Harriet's brother, Henry Ward Beecher, was put on trial for adultery, the ensuing scandal rocked the nation. Henry was the most famous preacher in America, and his trial split the Beecher family apart. Harriet was doggedly loyal, refusing to believe a word of the charges against her brother. But Isabella, the youngest of the Beecher sisters, believed Henry was guilty and that he should admit to the truth. For that, she was ostracized by the family, especially her much-loved older sister, Harriet. By now, I was hooked. This story had everything - religion, politics, race, sex, family values and even the battles of the women's movement. The facts took me only so far. What might have gone on in the hearts and minds of the Beechers, especially Harriet and Isabella, as they struggled with their painful rift and tried to find a way forward? My challenge as a novelist was to fill in what is lost in the fog of history with my imagination.

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